Just before Christmas, 2010, the Irish Government launched their 20 year strategy for the Irish language. Ten years in the making, there was little reaction to announcement from the translation industry, other than latching on to a media-friendly pitch about tripling the number of daily Irish speakers from 83,000 to 250,000 by 2030.
Most Irish language enthusiasts —or watchers of the subject—prefaced their comments along the lines of “Cuirim fáilte roimh stráitéis an rialtais i dtaca leis an Ghaeilge, ach….”. I am no different. I do welcome a strategy, but unfortunately, it’s the wrong strategy, for the wrong language, at the wrong time. What a shame the strategy wasn’t about creating a multilingual society in Ireland and positioned Irish within that, along with other languages. But then, there are politicians in the mix.
Firstly, 1.5 million Euros is a tiny amount of investment to dedicate to any language. And, the targeted increase in the numbers of speakers is unrealistic. Furthermore, the strategy offers nothing in the way of integration of all Irish speakers or reflects what’s really going on with the language today.
Instead, the message is clear, and it’s a political one. The strategy’s central thrust is about forcing people to learn Irish a particular way because Irish law requires it, and Irish is a recognized language of the European Union. Ironically, it is clear that Irish people are already well capable of learning and using Irish today, leveraging more popular culture influences such as TG4 and so on. Brian Ó Broin (no relation) of the William Paterson University in New Jersey has already pointed out that more Irish people than ever are speaking Irish in some form—though they cannot all understand each other because of dialectical differences—an encouraging trend that should be allowed to continue. A language is a living means of communication, not something defined by a legalistic interpretation and enforcement of some concept of Gaeltacht or a mandatory part of formal education for children and teenagers.
Next, it is clear that Ireland needs a language policy in general, one that goes far beyond statutory commitments to an teanga dúchais and addresses the needs of Ireland’s place in a globalized economy. Ireland’s already been criticized for its failings in multilingual skills provision and how this negatively impacts employment for Irish people (and indeed exports).
Anyone interested in how other countries value multilingual skills from an economic perspective should read Professor Ingela Bel Habib of University of Göteborg, Sweden’s paper “The effects of linguistic skills on the export performance of French, German and Swedish SMEs“, which demonstrates that multilingualism and economic competitiveness are closely linked. The list of job openings posted by Facebook in Dublin highlights the importance of language skills.
Finally, I found the strategy lacked any credible references or ideas about the role of technology in increasing Irish language usage. Sure, it makes some vague allusion to machine translation as being “critical”. But what of more innovative technological approaches? The strategy might have referred to the use of computer games in learning Irish (an area being researched by Ireland’s Centre for Next Generation Localisation, for example) or other ideas. Perhaps the strategy’s claim that “the Historic Dictionary of the Irish language being developed by the Royal Irish Academy will be completed by 2037” perhaps we should not be surprised at lack of insight here.
In all, a rather disappointing strategy document, destined for abandonment. Clearly, it’s a political document, delivered without much fanfare by a government that is deeply unpopular and also on the way out. Not that it will stop Irish people who want to speak Irish from doing so, thankfully. Besides, most of us now have much higher priorities now than paying attention to government “strategies”.